Into the Cloudforest

Published: January 19th 2016
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R: Next stop is Costa Rica - a small rainforest filled nation sandwiched between Panama and Nicaragua. Our flight took us via El Salvador - and to fans of the band Athlete, yes I was humming the song all the way there. We had an initial night in San Jose which was pretty much completely taken up with standing in the immigration line and sitting in a traffic jam into the city. The next morning we headed out on the early bus to La Fortuna, a tiny town in the shadow of the Arenal volcano. The bus took about 4 hours and along the way we mused about whether it was good or bad for a public bus to be this full of tourists when many of the locals couldn't get a seat. We actually had quite a nice hotel in La Fortuna, with a pool and a volcano view.

The volcano has been dormant since 2010 - but in geological time that's nothing, so we kept a cautious eye on the perfect volcano caldera - well as much as we could, it was mainly covered in cloud. Apparently 50% of visitors to Costa Rica never actually see the top. We were lucky on the first day to have a cracking view of it, and there were some wisps of smoke coming from the top, but I failed to take better than an Instagram photo of it, and then it was fairly cloudy for the next 3 days.

We headed to the hot springs at the foot of the volcano. There are various versions of these from free swimming ones to mega-resorts which have been built on them. We opted for an intermediate option, which had 25 or so pools, with differing temperatures fed by the hot springs, channeled by waterfalls. Average temperature was around 43c - thankfully it wasn't too hot that day. The site included a natural sauna cave - and when I say natural, I mean, hot water channeled through a waterfall inside a cave made out of plaster. Interestingly, it seemed to appeal to locals as much as the tourists and we saw plenty of "Ticos" enjoying their day out as much as the pale white people.

Next day we headed for the Catarata de La Fortuna - a waterfall at the base of a steep valley in the forest. It's quite a steep trip down, but the cool stream at the bottom was ideal for swimming. Sadly, no one told us this, so I did the British standard of rolling up my shorts and going for a paddle. We walked the 4km back and noticed the great flora that Costa Rica has to offer - colourful plants abound, and colourful birds to boot. After some Empanadas from a street stand, Cate settled in for a bit of pool time, and I went for a further explore and came across a colony of leaf cutter ants and a pair of angry looking Vultures, keeping a beady eye on the trail below.

After that we took the bus-boat-bus to Santa Elena, a touristy dormitory town near the Monteverde Cloud Forest. The journey takes you by bus to the Laguna Arenal, a lake at the foot of the volcano, then by boat to the other side, then another 90 mins on a rough track to Santa Elena. We were initially pretty disappointed by the place as it seemed loud, dusty and expensive, but we soon settled in. We headed out to a coffee farm to see beans being picked and processed, and got free samples of the small coffee farms' wares. Junior, our guide, was absolutely crazy, but did manage to convince me of the merits of light roast coffee, as opposed to the dark roasts I normally go for. Beans were ripening on the bushes at the time we visited which was great, because they were actually harvesting when we were there, they don't do that all year. They also had cocoa beans and took us through the chocolate process and Junior made some pretty impressive native recipe chocolate from the roasted cocoa beans while we watched and consumed!

Next morning, after a breakfast of scrambled egg tacos, we headed on up into the cloud forest - so called as it remains in the cloud for a large proportion of the time, brought on by its position at the top of the continental divide - the highest point between the Caribbean and Pacific coasts, the cloud bringing moisture and different kinds of plants to the area. Our guide, Adrian, also was fairly crazy. We spent 3 hours with him, hunting Quetzals, a small green and red endangered bird with 50cm long feathers on its back which look like a long tail, and when it flies, it resembles a snake flying through the air. A lot of people visit the cloud forest at 7:30am as its the best time to see animals, so it was a bit of a circus to start with, but we did eventually see the Quetzal, as well as some Toucans, lizards, tarantulas, hummingbirds and various other birds. After we finished with the guide, we continued our exploration of the forest independently with one of the other members of the tour group - another teacher! - and got great views of both the Caribbean and Pacific at the same time over the cloud forest. We also crossed a rickety hanging bridge which brought us closer to the canopy so we could see the plants and birds that exist at this level. They have a hummingbird gallery there that was just incredible - there are various plants to attract the hummingbirds, but they also have bird feeders with sugar water in them, which hooks them in by the hundreds. I have never seen so many, and probably will never again. They swooped around our heads, dive bombing and weaving to get to the feeders - 8 different types with varying bright colours. Truly incredible.

For our final day in the cloud forest, we walked up to Monteverde village which is much nicer and calmer than Santa Elena. We went to a butterfly garden which is a voluntary project owned by some Canadians, and had a tour of the gardens. Butterflies are pretty common in Costa Rica, but the garden brought together some of the lesser seen species. They also had an insectarium - in which the guide explained a game the other guides play with scorpions where two guides hold a stick between their faces and another guide places scorpions on the stick to see which way they walk and whose face they sit on. Conservation at its finest! Santa Elena also has a really cool orchid garden which we visited - you have to carry a magnifying glass as the flowers of most species are smaller than 1cm - the ones we get in the shops are hybrids, apparently.

Finally, I took a night walk with an group through the cloud forest in the hope of seeing something nocturnal. We were rewarded with sleeping toucans, sloths, red eyed frogs, a green viper, and plenty of crickets. Mostly they were at a high level to avoid the night tourism throngs, except two raccoons who were staring back at us from a low branch. The highlight, however, came on the minibus back to town, when the driver suddenly slammed on the anchors as he had spotted a sloth at a very low branch just by the side of the road, just outside town. I'm so glad I paid for that tour!

We were promised monkeys in Monteverde, but we haven't actually seen any. I'm writing this on a fairly excruciating minibus journey over rough terrain (the road to Monteverde is not paved) to the coast, where we are promised monkeys for sure.

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